T was a problem for me today. I wanted to include at least one poet from India this month and so Tagore (the only one from India to win the Nobel Prize in Literature) was a good choice but from the little I have read of his poems in English, a lot of the magic is lost and the poems seem a bit stilted. Then I thought of Tsvetaeva but the same applies to translations from the Russian though over the years I have enjoyed a few of Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova's poetry in English. (I recently read a article by Joseph Brodsky about the difficulties of translating from the Russian. He writes: "Russian poetry has not been lucky with its translations into English. It has been so unlucky that it may seem that the problem is in the Russian language itself—a synthetic, too flexible language which cannot be reproduced adequately in analytic English with its “iron word-order.” Successful translations are rare.")
I also thought of Tennyson but then decided to find some contemporary poet and found Allen Tate and James Tate, and finally decided that I'll go with James Tate, whose poetry I am not very familiar with and so this post provided an opportunity to read some of his work and to also read a few interviews with him. (I love reading interviews with writers and poets; sometimes, in the case of fiction, more so than reading the novels themselves, I enjoy reading book reviews, critiques, and interviews with the authors. I think this says something about me but that psycho-analysis can wait for some other day.)
Here then are four poems by James Tate.
The Lost Pilot
by James Tate
for my father, 1922-1944
Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him
yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot
like the others—it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive
orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,
with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested
scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not
turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You
could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what
it means to you. All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger's life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
by James Tate
They didn't have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
"You look like a god sitting there.
Why don't you try writing something?"
Never Again The Same
by James Tate
Speaking of sunsets,
last night’s was shocking.
I mean, sunsets aren’t supposed to frighten you, are they?
Well, this one was terrifying.
People were screaming in the streets.
Sure, it was beautiful, but far too beautiful.
It wasn’t natural.
One climax followed another and then another
until your knees went weak
and you couldn’t breathe.
The colors were definitely not of this world,
peaches dripping opium,
pandemonium of tangerines,
inferno of irises,
all swirling and churning, swabbing,
like it was playing with us,
like we were nothing,
as if our whole lives were a preparation for this,
this for which nothing could have prepared us
and for which we could not have been less prepared.
The mockery of it all stung us bitterly.
And when it was finally over
we whimpered and cried and howled.
And then the streetlights came on as always
and we looked into one another’s eyes —
ancient caves with still pools
and those little transparent fish
who have never seen even one ray of light.
And the calm that returned to us
was not even our own.”
Wait for Me
by James Tate
A dream of life a dream of birth
a dream of moving
from one world into another
All night dismantling the synapses
unplugging the veins and arteries . . .
Hello I am a cake of soap
dissolving in a warm bath
A train with no windows and no doors
a lover with no eyes for his mask
—inside is the speed of life
Who can doubt the worth of it
each letter written is obsolete
before it finds its friend
Our life is shorter now
full of chaotic numbers
which never complete a day
It will be the same
as it has always been
and you are right to pack
Your heart in ice
if you believe this.
I'll leave you with a link to 40 poems by James Tate at the Poetry Foundation website.